Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Real World College

Below is a brief talk I recently gave to the Visiting Committee to the College of Humanities & Natural Sciences at Loyola.

As an undergraduate I went to a rather crazy, small liberal arts college in the Midwest—I won’t name names.

I spent the first two years there wondering what I was doing, where I was going, how I was supposed to figure out my major…

Then about halfway through, the liberal arts mission of the college kicked in. I found that I had amassed many English and Philosophy courses, without really even trying. The question of my major was magically settled. My physics, biology, and Latin classes had captivated me just as much—and I continued taking courses in those disciplines, as well.

I ended up loving my education for all its eccentricities. It gave me an intellectual foundation for which I am more grateful every year.

I earned my PhD from a very different kind of school: the University of California, Davis, where I specialized in American Literature and in critical theory. At UC Davis, you also earn an obligatory degree in wine tasting, because it has one of the world’s foremost oenology & vitaculture programs, and the graduate students and local wineries always need volunteers to taste their new vintages. This skill came in handy once I was on the job market, and I still think my description of a certain Rhone wine at Herbsaint could have played a key role in landing me this job.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to be offered a position in the English department in 2009, and to be back on a small campus. And I have thrived here: I love my students, and I have had generous support from my Dean and my home department over the past five years to carry out my research, which focuses on a wide range of cultural studies topics. In 2011 my book on airports in American literature was published, and just this past month my academic study of the actor Brad Pitt came out. (Don’t ask.)

I currently edit a series of essays and pithy books published by The Atlantic and Bloomsbury, called Object Lessons: each author takes on a specific object, and writes about it for a general audience. Topics in this series include blankets, hotels, dust, golf balls, phone booths, trees, bread…I could go on and on, for the series is of infinite scope.

In all my writing projects, I have involved students in the publication process—giving them hands-on, real world experience that they can take with them once they leave Loyola. I recently heard from one graduate who took an editorial position with North Atlantic Books in San Francisco; another student emailed me just last week to say she’d been offered a highly selective internship position with Columbia University Press. I’ve also seen my former students go on to terrific graduate programs at institutions all over the country, in fields ranging from film production and creative writing to liberal arts and media studies.

At Loyola, in the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences, I’ve been able to integrate my teaching and scholarship at very turn: whether this means offering an interdisciplinary seminar on airports for first year Honors students, or creating a senior-level seminar on the late (and very challenging) author David Foster Wallace—a course which several students demanded, and who was I to say no?

When I was in college, one of my philosophy professors, Dr. Stephens, had this intense teaching habit: if a student would answer a question with a vague or  academic answer, Dr. Stephens would slam his hand down on the table and practically scream, "Make it real!

Likewise, but perhaps a bit more gently, I always try to impress upon my students that the distinction people make between college and the so-called ‘real world' is a false one. It’s just that it is up to us to actually treat college as a real world, with real implications. Whether I’m discussing postmodern literature with students, or working to help them write vivid prose ready for publication, I’m constantly reminding them that our ideas matter, and that they shape and are shaped by the world around, a world that urgently needs us to be aware and involved.

In the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences, I think we share this feeling, this real-world obligation toward our teaching and scholarship. We’re not detached, and the students recognize this, and they thrive when they realize that we are earnestly inviting them into real world adventures that require intellect and imagination. I’m glad to be a faculty member at Loyola, and excited to see what the future holds for our college.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Waiting for books in transit

Somewhere outside of New York two boxes of books sit on a truck, or in an airplane hold, in transit.  Perhaps they are at the bottom of a stack of other boxes, pressed down upon, suffocating. Or maybe they rest happily at the top, or somewhere indifferently in between. Maybe they have been tossed recklessly into a dark musty storage container and lie askew. Possibly they have already separated, and are following their own trajectories....

The contents of these boxes is this book whose cover is shown above, the Brad Pitt book, over ten years in the making, a weird and wild assemblage of essays on the actor and celebrity. It's either a field-changing, definitive study of a most popular figure...or it's simply another edited collection by obsessed and arguably deranged academics. Or else it is something else entirely. It might be all three of these things.

My editor in New York emailed me the other day to say she'd seen it, held it, and that it came out great—and here I wait, practically holding my breath, for the box to arrive. Waiting to hold it in my hands, to flip its pages and see what sort of beast it is that I'm at least partially responsible for creating.

I recently wrote a small piece on the book for the site Everyday Analysis, and my co-editor Robert Bennett composed a post for the Bloomsbury Film & Media Studies blog. These are two takes on the project now that we've been away from it for a few months. Still, you'll see that it left its marks on us.

Now there's nothing more to do but wait. We must wait, wait for them to be trundled across the country, a box to New Orleans and a box to Bozeman, Montana. And then, when they arrive, what then?

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Kettle Pond

the kettle pond

A few years ago I took a walk in a huge swath of forest that is officially part of the National Lakeshore, but which is weirdly cut off from the rest of the park, in the middle of Leelanau County. That time, I got lost. A friend and I had gone looking for these remote kettle ponds—old glacial scrapes that are spring fed and stay full of water—and after we'd explored the ponds and marshes, we tried to take a bearing and head over a high ridge by way of a shortcut back to the dirt road where we'd parked my car. This was not a great idea. We became disoriented and wandered around for hours before seeing an optical illusion of a barn through the trees—a barn that turned out to be nothing more than a grove of red pines in eerily formal rows, such as they were planted by the CCC in the 1930s. But there was a two-track along the pines that lead back to the road we'd taken in the first place, so eventually we found the car.

The feeling of being lost in the woods stayed with me. On the map the area doesn't seem so big; the National Park Service barely (and even then, ambiguously) identifies it as part of the Park, and there are no signs. In person, its valleys and ridges are overwhelmingly enormous. There are not really any trails to speak of, except for meandering deer paths and occasional random four-wheeler tracks that abruptly end, leaving you facing an uncertain infinity of choices in terms of which direction to go. What appear at first to be straightforward slopes turn into undulations that loop back on themselves, and it is just the most uncanny feeling to be unsure of whether you've seen a certain fallen aspen before, or if this is a different one, and if so, where are you now, it looked like the same place, but you've been walking for ten minutes and you should be somewhere else, unless you got turned around somehow, oh wait, there's a trail ahead, oh no, it's just a slight depression caused by natural drainage after the last thunderstorm....

These perceptions are especially fresh in my mind because last week I went back out to this place twice. While I had never quite shaken off the thrill of being lost (and of course finding my way back), there was another part of those woods that stayed with me: in one of those kettle ponds, when I crept up to the edge of the crystal clear water, I stared wide-eyed as two big (at least for this northern climate) largemouth bass swam within feet of me, looking up at me as if in sheer curiosity. The vision of those fish stayed with me. I wanted to get back out there with my fly rod.

Can you spot two bass in the shallows?

So I returned to the kettle pond with my fly rod, only sort of getting lost the first day, and only vaguely the second day (but feeling ready to be completely lost again at any moment, both days). I discovered the pond to be full of bass as well as some strange hybrid sunfish with larger-than-normal mouths. The fishing was exciting to say the least, but it was no walk in the park (even if it was, in a way). First there's the hike there, which was riddled with mystery—at one point the second day I found myself convinced I'd lost my way, and I felt ridiculous standing in a valley of ferns with no water in sight, holding my fly rod. But finally the cedar thicket materialized and the pond was there.

The fishing proper was rather exhausting and maddening, as the pond is basically a bog; there is no sandy bank to stroll along or wade into. While it looks shallow, the bottom is essentially depthless. You sink right in up to your waist and are surrounded by the tall bulrushes that encircle the pond, whose barbed spikelets manage to constantly grab your fly line, your fly, your shirt...in short, you find yourself totally tangled up about every three minutes.* The bass would shoot across the shallows dramatically and grab my fly off the surface of the water, but then they'd burrow down into aquatic micro-forests of muskgrass, creating the impression of suddenly having the entire world attached to the end of the line. Or they'd take long leaping runs across the pond, the reel drag screaming against my palm. And every time I'd want to move along the shoreline, I had to heave with great effort to break the suction around my feet and legs as I would have slowly sunk deeper into the silt muck as I'd been fishing. And while the fish are relatively gregarious, it's still very easy to spook them; in the glassy water they are used to having to flee from osprey and eagles who perch on maple and oak branches fifty feet above.

I'm trying to write this in a way that it isn't merely a fishing story, and isn't simply stock nature writing. I'm writing this with the beginnings of my next book in mind, the book I'm now calling (borrowing from the title of a chilling Hemingway story) Up in Michigan. I've got this idea of writing a hybrid book that blends my jaunts in Michigan with my long running interests and teaching in literature & environment. I don't know how this is going to work, or if it even will, but I've got the inkling of something, some narrative collection of essays that at once celebrates a place, and explodes 'place' as a concept.

A valley of maiden hair ferns disrupts my sense of place

*At dinner a few nights later, a couple great friends told me they'd taken up the minimalist fly fishing technique Tenkara, and it occurred to me that this would be a perfect way to fish the kettle pond. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Revisiting Bozeman

I've just returned to Michigan from Bozeman, Montana, where I revisited the airport I worked at over ten years ago. So much was the same, and yet there were also innumerable differences everywhere. I was there to observe and write, and I spent several hours wandering around taking pictures, jotting down notes. I met with the Airport Director Brian Sprenger, and he talked to me about recent trends and challenges; then he gave me a tour, focusing specifically on the major expansion and redesign of a few years ago. I was particularly excited to see the new high-tech baggage makeup area behind the check-in counters, with its overhead conveyors and multiple drop-points. When I worked at the airport, moving baggage around was a pretty ad-hoc endeavor—at least compared to the new system.

It was an emotionally intense trip (for reasons that I won't get into here), and strange if also invigorating to see the airport, 'my' airport, this relatively minor travel site that has been somewhat major for me, this place I've written about and thought about so much over the past several years. 

What struck me almost immediately upon my arrival was the indifference of the airport. It's just an airport doing its job, moving people in and out of the state—just like it always has, cooly accepting eager fly fishermen and crisp cowboys (I'm using the masculine here on purpose), and then a few days later spiriting these same forlorn souls away in tightly packed tubes.

And yet...there are things going on here that are not only unique to Bozeman, but which are indicative of broader currents and snags in the culture of flight. I'm writing about these things as a way to conclude my book The End of Airports, which sweeps from my own ethnography of the airport in 2001-2003, to more current episodes and dilemmas that riddle air travel.

My tagline for this book is that I'm not writing an obituary for airports, but more like a mystery. What are these gray places we pass through, only always to leave behind in our minds? What makes these concentrated nodes of hubris and gaudiness at once so remarkable and so forgettable? How do we inhabit their ambiguous boundaries? Where do airports begin, and where do they end? How does air travel fit into our era of 'new media', where things move so much faster than the speed of planes?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Writing about place

beneath bracken ferns, during hide & seek with Julien

It's impossible to write about place.

I was chatting with my friend Ian the other day and he mentioned in passing, "writing is impossible." We had been talking about how hard it really is to write clear coherent prose. It is. Difficult, I mean. Just try following your thoughts and sensations for five minutes, and putting them into neat prose.

Then you add a topic, or god forbid a 'theme', and it gets harder still. Focus, attention, word by word, sentence to paragraph. Logical propositions. What was I talking about again?

It's impossible to write about place. I've been thinking about this book I want to write about the little corner of Michigan where I'm from, the Leelanau peninsula. Part nature writing, part memoir, part environmental theory, I want the book to be both a testament to this place and to reflect the reading, thinking, and teaching I've done on literature & environment over the past decade or so. Every spring I get excited and inspired to work on the book when I leave New Orleans and arrive for the summer.

Then I get up here and I am almost instantaneously overwhelmed by the borderless expanses of the place. I'm not referring to its geography, so much. I mean it's bigger than Walden Pond but not that big. I've walked a portion of its shorelines (at least on the west side of the peninsula), and have meandered through its various woods and meadows, during all hours of the day and at night. And anyway, people have written good books about entire National Parks and other such privileged or delimited zones before. That's not the problem.

There's something about the saturated quality of this place, all the personal psychological inroads as well as two-track off-roads, the cultural hotspots and weird spaces beyond the grid. I have thought of this book as a 21st-century Walden, or perhaps better an anti-Walden. "Anti-" in the dialectical sense, trying to locate some of the contradictions and tensions within the thinking that Thoreau so well tied to a specific place and its natural registers. But so far, I keep running into nearly impenetrable thickets of things, thoughts, and otherwise thorny obstacles. I suppose it is a good thing—there is a lot I want to write about here, even as it pushes back on me.

Nevertheless...it's impossible to write about place.

Now that I think about it, maybe this is why I often begin my freshman writing courses with a seemingly simple assignment: write about your room. Just describe it as best you can. How long? I don't know, see how much you can notice, what's around. Two pages, three, four—how far can you go? It's an exercise in attention to detail and sustained focus on a single, bounded place. But the boundaries quickly become blurry and elastic. I recall one student last fall who ended up lingering on his dorm window and gradually came to the realization that inside and outside were not as a clear and distinct as he'd assumed. He wondered, did the screws that bolted his window closed count as part of his room? The glass? And if so, just the interior side, or the weather-beaten exterior, as well? Impossible to decide.

I'm having similar conundrums as I play hide & seek with Julien in the valleys, as I canoe inland lakes shrouded in mist. What is this place? How can one draw a perimeter around it, in thought? When does the writing begin, from where should it take off?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Canoeing, a brief personal history

In the canoe last summer, on the big lake

Rumor has it that there were four water rescues out in Lake Michigan last week. At least, four near where I am, on the Leelanau peninsula. The big lake is big, and can go from glassy calm to six-foot swells in a matter of minutes, if the wind direction shifts just slightly. The new craze for paddle boards seems to have promoted a false sense of security on the lake, as if these picturesque northern bays should naturally behave like tropical coves: warm, languid, and predictable. But they don't, and no matter how expensive your board is, and no matter how hip your sunglasses and low-profile your personal flotation device, the water is very cold and you won't last long once you are tossed into it.

I'm terrified of the big lake. I always have been. When I was seven or eight, at summer camp, I went out with a group on a Hobie Cat and it flipped in high wind; I recall the feeling of total dread as we bobbed in the deep blue and our counselor worked to right the seemingly minuscule, flimsy vessel. I don't even recall what happened: did we sail back? Were we rescued by a motorboat? I know I cried. I sobbed, blubbering my tiny tears into indifferent cresting waves. I never went out on a sailboat again. (Maybe once, on a tranquil day ten years later, on a Sunfish with an expert sailor—I don't know, I've blocked it out.)

I learned to canoe, and this felt better—more stable, less audacious when it came to speed and long sprints away from shore. Paddling parallel to the shore on flat water was perfectly acceptable, learning to switch places bow and stern, balancing on the gunwales; how to re-flip a capsized canoe in deep water using the air trapped beneath the hull, lifting the gunwales straight up while simultaneously swiftly kicking hard in the water and hurling the craft over, ideally empty of all water. When done right it was a thing to see.

I grew up canoeing the inland lakes and rivers each summer, but never really thinking about it as anything romantic. Heavy plastic green canoes, occasionally a red one, or lighter-weight but clumsier (because longer) aluminum ones, banging on the ground at the put-in, screeching past low hanging branches down sluggish brown rivers. Ramshackle week-long trips with tasteless Sysco foodstuffs cooked at night over smoky fires. Leeches horrifyingly elastic and bloated; leaky dry-bags; soggy sleeping bags; the dank smell of tents encrusted with blood splatters from communally feasting mosquitos slapped onto the tentwalls season after season, overlapping sepia stains.

Later I was wooed by sea kayaks: they seemed more elegant and sporty (the colors alone!). But I never could master the roll, with that magical twist of the hips. During my early twenties I lead kayaking tours on Yellowstone Lake and on Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Parks. These were fairly low key trips, even if the landscapes were dramatic. Mostly day trips, we could paddle around 'interpreting' the geography, flora, and fauna, acting like we knew a lot more than we actually did. I tried river kayaking one time with a highly skilled friend who had a couple short whitewater boats; after attempting a few moves in the swift current I got slammed into a canyon wall, flipped, and ended up swimming the next few miles.

In Wyoming another part of that job was leading river trips, on inflatable rafts. Our company took a scenic trip down ten miles of the Upper Snake River, on a large raft with an oar rig—this was a meandering journey through meadows and steadily rising foothills just north of Jackson Lake. Then there was a quick three-mile section above that, through a whitewater canyon with some standing waves that peaked in late May and could reach astonishing intensity for a few days (the site of my botched kayaking adventure). I found I was quite good at navigating the smaller inflatable rafts, where we all used paddles (and the guide in the back with a longer paddle commanded the paddlers up front, aka "guests" or "customers"). I quickly realized that all those years in crappy canoes with lousy partners in the bow had given me an intuitive sense of how to wrangle a large vessel from a single point of contact with the water. A single paddle blade moved just right can do amazing things.

In the spring of 2013 my father-in-law died, leaving me to more or less tacitly inherit his fifty-year-old Grumman canoe: an aluminum, mass produced piece of art that had been in his family for decades, moving around all along the east coast before ending up here in northern Michigan. The rivets are all sound, and the keel tracks like it is fresh off the assembly line. Last summer I took the canoe out several times on the big lake—on exceptionally calm days, staying near shore. At the end of the summer I took my father-in-law's ashes out on Lake Michigan and spread them where he used to love to swim; the gray ashen mist itself swam and swirled as it descended through fifteen feet of water and disappeared.

This summer I installed cross bars on the roof our small Subaru, and I've been taking the canoe to all the inland lakes I fished every day when I was growing up. I know these lakes like the back of my hand and it has been thrilling, eerie, and in short kind of delightfully strange to take my son Julien to these lakes and tell him stories that I dredge up from twenty-some years ago, sense impressions unleashed by sudden flights of sandhill cranes, fish explosions on the lake's surface, cloud formations that tumble over the forested hillsides.

I have things to write about each of these lakes, these depthless glacial pockets along the lakeshore. This is just a beginning, an attempt to briefly sketch out a personal history of canoeing. Actually the more I think about it, the more I see I've left some important chapters out already.* But this will suffice for now, as a start. One of the hardest parts of writing is just getting started.

Julien in the canoe this summer, on a small lake

* Two come to mind that I want to remember for later: canoeing Algonquin Provincial Park when I was seventeen, and canoeing on Hyalite Lake with Greg Keeler, where we'd fish for cutthroat trout.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Obligatory blog update

summer home

Twitter feels more and more useful as a place to write/think/connect, but I still feel the need to update this blog from time to time. So, out of a strange sense of archival obligation, here's what I've been up to lately:

I'm back in Michigan for the summer, where I'm finishing up _Deconstructing Brad Pitt—we're in the final proofreading stages now.


I'm also working on Object Lessons, as well as a few other writing projects of my own. Later this summer I'm taking a research trip to Bozeman, Montana, to write about the airport (BZN) ten years after I worked there. I have no idea what I'll find, but I'm excited to be there, to wander around and observe. My plan is for whatever I write about BZN to become the concluding part of the book I'm calling The End of Airports. The book is sort of a prequel and a sequel to The Textual Life of Airports (if that makes sense). Along other airport lines I'm preparing a course I'm teaching this coming fall at Loyola, an Honors seminar called "Interpreting Airports." I taught a first draft of this class this past semester, and it was a blast; I'm hoping it becomes one of my staple courses.

Whenever I'm back in Michigan I stumble on old books from my childhood. I think one day I may put together a course on children's literature, and focus especially on some of the weirder, out-of-print ones—like this one, Timothy's Dream Book by Pierre Le-Tan, which I read to my son Julien the other night, recalling each page as I read it again with a certain uncanny delight:

Timothy's Dream Book

The morels have been really good this spring, because of the heavy snowpack; but they are also more scattered and trickier to find, as the white ash tree population has been decimated by the emerald ash borer beetle, and morels tend to cluster around ash trees on certain hillsides.

morels in the woods

Finally, there's the new roommate! We're getting to know Camille, who is almost eight weeks old now and starting to feel like a real part of our daily rhythms and routines.

Camille & Julien

Since having dinner with Kathryn Bond Stockton a few months ago, and after listening to her terrific talk at Tulane on representations of "the queer child," I've been thinking a lot about 'the child' as an alien thing...and considering how I might write something about this topic, sometime in the near future. But really, for now, this summer I'm trying to clear my desk of things and take some actual time off.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Alone, With Craft

A Singapore Airlines Boeing 777 First Class Suite

The New Inquiry has just published a new essay of mine, called "Escape Velocity," about two stories that appeared on the Internet over the past couple months: the Boeing 777 made out of manila folders, and Jason E. Harrington's essay about his former job with the TSA and subsequent ascension into an esteemed MFA program. These are both ephemeral, viral-for-a-day stories that involve air travel, and various friends and students alerted me to them when they started making the rounds.

My analysis of Luca Iaconi-Stewart's intricate model airplane was inspired by my adoption of this story in my current class at Loyola, Interpreting the Airport: we discussed this curious story, and talked about what made this plane (and the way it was photographed and displayed on the CNN website) so captivating and strange. My students had such terrific insights and responses to the story, and in class I started writing (with their input) what would become the first part of the essay.

In my other course this semester, Contemporary Nonfiction, I assigned Harrington's essay, in particular for how it enfolds the act of writing (and the desire to be a 'writer') into the broader problem at hand, i.e. the TSA and its attendant travesties involving the full body scanners. My students in that class responded very well to this piece, noting how the author used the occasion of the unpopular government agency and airport security to bolster and boost his own budding writing career; we've been talking a lot in this class about the possibilities, necessities, and limits of self-promotion (especially with social media), and what it means to write nonfiction about a discrete topic while also including the topic of oneself as writer in the writing. So, Harrington's piece gave us a lot to work with.

I respect Harrington's jumping off point, airport-worker-turned-writer. It's somewhat similar to my own trajectory, and I think it's an incredibly important point of critique—notes from the field, as it were. But I also think the essay is a fascinating example of how new media forms of communication are outpacing—and even out-dramatizing—the very subjects and objects which they are ostensibly merely about. Flight isn't so fancy these days.

Take the case of the currently missing Boeing 777, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. It is a terrifying mystery, and a very real situation involving hundreds of travelers and justifiably worried and frustrated relatives and friends. But it's also a situation that has captivated millions of unrelated (one almost wants to say random) Internet users, and has therefore generated countless hits and associated advertising revenue. It has become a phenomenon that goes way beyond navigation technics, commercial aviation, and personal routes of flight. For all of the collective efforts to find the lost plane—people rallying around crowd-sourcing endeavors and adding to hashtag assemblages—there is also a way that all these scattered Internet users around the globe are on their own, alone with the craft of communicating in our late digital age. We like to think that air travel is still about self-contained individual humans flying to solid places for grounded, real experiences; but being alone, with craft, has a lot to do with farther flung modes of work, communication, being, and entertainment, too.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Object Lessons, the backstory

Earlier this winter Ander Monson asked me & Ian to do an editor's post on Object Lessons for the Essay Daily; it's up and you can see it here. And now for further edification, here's even more—the backstory of the series:

A few years ago my editor at what was then Continuum, Haaris Naqvi, and I were eating at a Thai restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island—this was during an ACLA conference hosted by Brown University. I had just presented a paper on David Foster Wallace's use of air travel in The Pale King. Over bowls of steaming curry, Haaris wondered if I’d be interested in proposing a new series of cultural studies books for the press. (My recently published airport book had triggered this idea.) At that time I had been reading lightly if enthusiastically across the burgeoning movement called Object-Oriented Ontology, and teaching some of these texts in my courses at Loyola, and I immediately thought about a series devoted to single objects and the lessons they hold. On the spot I came up with the series title “Object Lessons.” Reaktion has a very nice academic series called objekt—I admired these books, but wanted more of them. Lots more. And I wanted them to be a little shorter, pithier: books you could read on a single cross-country flight, say. I had a vision for the series: an endless list of slim books unified by a striking design, brief titles (one or two words, no subtitles), and the utterly unexpected juxtapositions that would occur between the volumes over time.

I had this hunch that there were plenty of academics who know a lot about single things—whether from long research projects or just from everyday life and non-academic hobbies. But there isn’t really a place for this kind of para-academic writing: a place to write about that one thing that captivates you but which in normal academic writing would get subsumed by vast apparatuses of frameworks, concepts, and theory. So much scholarly writing ends up in forms that are either too expensive for the common reader to access, or too abstruse to understand (much less enjoy) if you are outside of the author’s discipline or field of expertise. Where can an academic write more playfully, in accessible prose, for a wider audience? (There are blogs, sure—but who really wants to read another blog?)

I initially saw Object Lessons as a venue for two types of academics: junior scholars who were working on a traditional monograph but who also had a pet project, maybe some minor topic that got a page-worth of attention in their book, but which could warrant a small book of its own; and more senior scholars who were at that point in their career when they might want to write a smart yet accessible book on a single thing—something they know enough about to come at it from a surprising angle.

From the outset I envisioned the series as having crossover appeal: a venue for public intellectual writing (in the best sense of that phrase). Neither compromising theoretical sophistication nor abandoning lucid and lithe prose, the series would be a place for good smart writing on a wide range of ordinary and concrete topics. Was this unrealistic, idealistic, too neat and tidy a vision? Probably so.

Nevertheless, I started conjuring this book series, and as part of the initial proposal I asked about a dozen writers and scholars whose work I admired to serve on the Advisory Board—including Ian Bogost, whose wonderful Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing I had just read.

About a year later, Ian came to New Orleans to give a talk from a new book project, and over wine one afternoon we were talking about the book series, and Ian suddenly raised the stakes: what if it weren’t just a book series, but if it had a corollary essay series, published in a high profile venue like The Atlantic? It turned out that Ian had been mulling over a similar series idea, but essay-oriented, rather than geared toward books. But what if we merged these plans? In short, what if it was a series with two outlets, for two (not mutually exclusive) forms of writing?

From that point on, things happened fast. We drafted up a proposal for Ian's contacts at The Atlantic, and Alexis Madrigal and his savvy crew loved the idea of the series. The essays would be run primarily out of their Technology Channel, which gave us a useful constraint and challenge for how to describe what we meant by 'objects'. (You can read some of that proposal's language here.)

As we sat there discussing the series we intermittently rattled off lists of objects, at turns focusing and expanding the potential scope of the series:

bundt cake, cuttlefish, aircraft carriers...vacuum bags, bottle caps, flying buttresses…Blow Pops, slime mold, sawdust, silence...magnesium, bone marrow, bilge pumps...crabgrass, Kleenex, coolant...lodgepole pinecones, dryer lint, dental floss...honey, hurricanes, heliotropes, hatred...morel mushrooms, molasses, landing gear...copper wire, cruise ships, Velcro...tampons, tigers, trademarks, trash...cilium, silt, silence, suitcases...dirt, dioramas, interstellar nebulae...windshield wipers, wonder, inchworm...

While we were developing the proposal for the series, something happened to Continuum: it merged with the publisher Bloomsbury, which ended up working out well for us, as the larger independent publisher offered the series a wider platform and robust marketing. And Haaris got promoted. Haaris is terrific, and helps us move our book proposals through the review and vetting processes at a brisk pace. He's also a champion of top-notch design and overall book quality, which is one of the ulterior motives of the series: to make books that are themselves elegant objects, pleasant to hold and to read.

We launched the series in June 2013, and you can read the rest at the Essay Daily...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Introducing Scott Shershow

poster by Nancy Bernardo*

Scott Shershow is a great friend and was a fantastic mentor of mine at UC Davis; he directed my dissertation on airports in American literature and culture. Scott visited New Orleans a couple years ago and gave a fascinating talk at Loyola last year on the philosophical debates that undergird laws and ethics around the topics of suicide and the right to die. The book that developed from that talk, Deconstructing Dignity, has just come out, and Scott has a terrific post at the University of Chicago Press's blog on recent episodes where these issues have flared up once again in the news, stirring up a range of tense (and not always consistent) emotions, attitudes, and ideas. This got me thinking back to Scott's talk at Loyola last year, and I realized I might as well put my introduction to Scott here on my blog. The introductions we write for guest speakers often become so much more ephemeral work done by academics—a crumpled page in the recycle bin or a forgotten file in a blue simulacral folder, never to be looked at again. So, here it is:


Professor Shershow’s work ranges across conceptual boundaries with relentless ease, making sophisticated and always surprising connections between political economy, Western philosophy, visual arts, literature, and anthropology—to name a mere few of the fields that his work traverses. 

I’ve been referring to Shershow’s “work,” but what I really should say is that Shershow excels at unworking texts—and not just literary texts, but all sorts of structures and textures that form and inform everyday life.

Whether he is elaborating the most troubling and perplexing implications of torture, describing precisely how a Sarah Silverman line clinches a philosophical knot, unpacking the dense rhetoric of ‘sacrifice’ in post-9/11 discourse, or delineating the conflicting economic schemas that course through the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic—in all these cases, Shershow’s thinking maintains a buoyancy, a rigor, and a flexibility that is always refreshing, and equally challenging. 

Where I am tempted to quote something from the philosopher Jacques Derrida in order to further elaborate Shershow's contributions to contemporary critical theory, I will instead turn to a few lines by Wallace Stevens, from “The Ultimate Poem is Abstract”—these lines, I believe, evoke the spirit of Scott Shershow’s unique and inspiring style of inquiry, unworked:

If the day writhes, it is not with revelations.
One goes on asking questions. That, then, is one
Of the categories. So said, this placid space

Is changed. It is not so blue as we thought. To be blue,
There must be no questions. It is an intellect
Of windings round and dodges to and fro,

Writhings in wrong obliques and distances,
Not an intellect in which we are fleet…

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Done with Deconstructing Brad Pitt

evolution of the cover

Last weekend I delivered the final manuscript of Deconstructing Brad Pitt. It will be on bookshelves this coming September.

This book was incredibly stressful to put together, but highly rewarding in the end. It was, to borrow Brad Pitt's own word applied in various contexts, a "journey." (Most books are, but this one palpably so.)

From the original call for papers, some of the chapters never materialized; and some of those that did show up needed serious revisions that then never materialized. One contributor died. Another one went crazy (read the book for the rest of that story). My own chapter kept evading me and shifting topics as it moved—finally I nailed it down and had a lot of fun with it, but it's pretty weird. There were other quirks and oddities not suitable for discussion on a blog.

Originally I intended to edit the collection myself, and I went at it alone for about a year—but it became overwhelming. The chapters seemed at turns too personal or too detached. Editing the chapters was like trying to get into other people's heads, and specifically that part of a head that is obsessed with someone else. (The experience was reminiscent of Being John Malkovich.) Celebrity studies is a hard thing to get right: it is all too easy to be cooly dismissive, or to take things way too seriously. It was difficult to balance attachments to Brad Pitt (as an artist, as an icon, as a person) with the more exterior conceptual framework, such that the book would have critical value (whatever that means).

My friend and co-editor Robert Bennett really saved the book. Last summer I invited him to join me on this distinguished endeavor, and luckily for me he accepted. Robert came on the scene with fresh energy and ideas for how to think about the book and arrange its contents. The book has this sidelong relationship to Jacques Derrida—thus the "deconstructing" in the title—and we were trying to play throughout with some of the more approachable ideas implied by his quasi-philosophy. But we're not trying to suggest that Pitt is uniquely deconstructive. Rather, it is simply a useful way to think about all sorts of celebrities, how they appear and what sort of cultural work they do, how they communicate. I like to imagine an ongoing series of books applying this title-word and accompanying strategy: Deconstructing Philip Seymour Hoffman, etc. I may be the scourge of the humanities, but it seems to me that if we can't use our ideas to talk about the shimmering and vibrant world around us—then what are we doing? And the thing about deconstruction is that it is a positive term. It's generous. It gives.

For a project that started out as a joke over ten years ago, and which may strike some as ludicrous, this book turns out to have surprisingly good essays in it concerning a range of issues connected (more or less directly) to the name Brad Pitt. It's a book that takes Brad Pitt seriously, but which is also playful. It's personal, and yet aware of itself. I'm really happy with how the book turned out, and very glad that it is done.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Introducing Tim Morton

The title of this blog post is silly; Tim Morton needs no introduction at this time. But I had to introduce him last night, before his talk at Loyola, and writing an introduction for Tim was a nice walk down memory lane—so I'm posting it here for general reading:

I first met Timothy Morton in 2003, when I was starting out as a PhD student at the University of California, Davis.

Tim had just been hired at Davis, to replace the famous poet and acclaimed nature writer Gary Snyder, who was retiring around that time. These were big shoes to fill, but we heard enticing rumors of Professor Morto's edgy and daring style of eco-criticism, and we had our hopes set high.

That first year of grad school, I took one of Tim's seminars on environmental aesthetics, and I'll always remember one day when Tim came in, plugged his laptop into the room's loudspeakers, and broadcast the computer as it robotically and awkwardly read his notes aloud for the day's discussion. Tim sat there silent and grinning; we sat there uncertain, shifting and uncomfortable—which somehow exactly proved his point that day. (We were discussing Frankenstein.) 

A few years later I worked up the nerve to ask Tim if he would be on my dissertation committee; I was writing about airports in literature from a curious ecological angle. Tim told me to meet him at his office the next day.

I met Tim at his office the next afternoon, and he suggested we go get coffee.

Twenty minutes later, we were sitting on a bench in the quad, sipping coffee and looking out at the cork oaks and streams of bicyclists. I launched into some elaborate theories of postmodern space, dislocated regionalism, and air travel's place in all this. I had brought a few pages of typed questions and notes, which I handed to him at some point. Tim scanned the pages as I rambled on for several minutes.

Then I stopped, completely out of steam. I needed guidance—that's why I was a graduate student, after all.

Tim paused, looked back at my pages, then around the quad…and then he asked me:

"Have you ever really tasted an avocado?" 

We spent the next 45 minutes talking about avocados—and this conversation totally changed how I thought about airports.

That pretty much sums up what it's like to work with Tim: he catches you off guard, in exactly the right way. 

One of the most important things I learned from Tim was about teaching, and it proves more true and effective each year that I teach college courses. 

This was in a graduate seminar on pedagogy; we were talking about poetry, and all the ways you could teach rhyme and meter, explain structure and form—but at one point Tim broke through all the jargon and said, "You know what? Just dare to be dumb." 

This was shocking, but so true: between the students and the texts in front of us all, we'd figure it out. It's all there. All we had to do was dare to ask simple questions, without having already made up our minds. Dare to read things slowly—decelerate! was one of Tim's mantras in that class. 

The longer I teach, and the dumber and dumber I feel each year standing in front of savvy new college students, I take more and more solace in Tim's point. Daring to be dumb means letting raw intelligence emerge in front of me, each new year, in every class.

Tim's writings on ecology, aesthetics, literature, and philosophy are audacious and sincere, trenchant and playful. His work has influenced myriad fields, and for good reason. It will rock your world, if you're open to it. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

My Grandfather's Tower

I wrote a bit about my grandparents' Frank Lloyd Wright home once before, a few years ago. Well today I was wandering around the Internet looking for something when I happened to stumble on a familiar image; I clicked and discovered a 2012 blog post about my grandparents' house. It is merely a pleasant architectural-historical review of sorts, but I was particularly pleased to see that this post mentioned my grandfather's tower, and included a picture of it:

This oddity of an edifice had nothing whatsoever to do with Frank Lloyd Wright, but instead was conjured by my grandfather after he saw the Space Needle at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. Upon returning to Michigan he had this 40-foot dodecagonal structure built next to their swimming pool, in the back of the house. The tower was where my grandfather went to think and imagine. In various coffee-table books about Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, you can see aerial photographs of my grandparents' house, and usually those pictures were taken from the tower.

The tower was also a favorite place for me, my siblings, and my cousins to play: the spiral staircase leading up to the trapdoor in the floor (a trapdoor!) always felt like it went inconceivably up and up and up, and it got darker and darker until pitch black—then you'd bump the door hatch and push it up on its hinge, and sunlight light would come pouring down the stairs. Once up there, though, there really wasn't much to do. Usually it would end in a wild race back down the stairs; whoever was last and closed the trapdoor behind them would be enveloped suddenly in blackness.

I spent several weekends in college camped out in the tower, working on papers. (My grandparents lived about an hour and a half from the small liberal arts college I went to.) I remember staring out at the surrounding woods as I worked on a paper about the role of forests in a few different Shakespeare plays. And then there was another paper about Wallace Stevens I wrote there; I actually remember reading Helen Vendler's Words Chosen out of Desire up in that tower.

Here is an older picture of the tower, taken in 1972; look at how the trees have grown:

Once my grandfather told me a story about a time he was in the tower and he looked out and saw an enormous flock of birds in the distance: one of those dense undulating masses of blackbirds or starlings. The birds were getting closer, and he realized that the vast skein was at the exact altitude of the tower; he dropped to the floor in fear that they would crash through the windows. But looking up from the floor, he watched as the innumerable birds soared around and past the tower, reassembling in tight formation on the other side. Talk about one unique way of looking at some blackbirds.

After my grandfather died, I found in a small wood box some of the cufflinks that he had made of the tower:

These are my favorite cufflinks to wear, even though they are a little pointy and weird. I gave a pair to Ian Bogost when I first met him, as a token of thanks for endorsing my book about airports. I had just read Alien Phenomenology, and for some reason I thought Ian would appreciate the story of my quirky grandfather, for whom it wasn't enough to have a Frank Lloyd Wright home—he needed a personal tower next to the house, and then needed to commemorate the tower with personalized cufflinks! The back of each cufflink reads:


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Object Lessons at MLA

If you are at MLA in Chicago this week, stop by the Bloomsbury tables (136 & 138) and talk to our editor Haaris Naqvi about Object Lessons. As a bonus, you can pick up this snazzy flyer:

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Finishing Deconstructing Brad Pitt

I am currently working (hustling might be a more accurate term) to assemble the final manuscript for this book, a collection of essays about Brad Pitt. 

The book started out as a joke more than ten years ago in Montana, existed as a sort of academic shaggy dog story during the time I was a PhD student at UC Davis, and then became a real project after I moved to New Orleans. And now it's almost complete. 

The book includes some excellent essays on the expected and unexpected facets of Pitt, both as an actor and as a celebrity. It's been a bewildering process, though, because the book can't possibly encompass—not to mention keep up with—the roles, appearances, and disseminations of Brad Pitt. But that's part of the point...

If everything goes smoothly from here on out, and with a little luck, it will be in airport bookstores a year from now.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

13 Very Short Airport Stories

1. Lucy was scanned by the dynastic x-ray machine, and then she strolled into a simulated cedar grove leading away from the terminal.

2. A cheerleading squad assembled near the baggage carousel, waiting for shiny equipment to arrive in unremarkable duffle bags.

3. Stepping through a red glow, Lars inserted his credit card into the self check-in kiosk, and the computer retrieved his itinerary to LGA. Did Lars want to print his boarding passes?

4. The Starbucks line was long. There were only 9 minutes until Priority Boarding. Li hesitated, looking down the concourse toward gate 64.

5. Georgette knew the way to the Admiral's Club. She knew that there were two more moving walkways until she would see the frosted sliding doors.

6. Lena preferred Lufthansa because it was a good german airline, because the planes had blue tails and there was no better way to fly, really.

7. In the bathroom near the F gates, Paulo couldn't decide whether to use a paper towel after he'd washed his hands, or the Dyson Airblade.

8. Suddenly Robby was elated to discover an unexpected power outlet nestled between the Eames Tandem sling seats; his Samsung Galaxy would be charged for the flight.

9. Elizabeth deftly maneuvered her carry-on bag around the bookshelves and past the magazines, looking for something to read during the two-hour layover.

10. The garbage can at the juncture of the C and D concourses overflowed, and a Smoothie King styrofoam cup clattered to the ground.

11. Charlene loved to scold the passengers who reported their luggage lost. She scolded them hard, shaking her head as she processed each claim, entering information into the computer.

12. Four baggage carts were parked in a snaked line. One cart's vinyl curtain flapped in the jetwash of an Airbus taxiing away from gate E14.

13. The overhead speakers called for a Mr. Spartenbot to pick up a white courtesy phone. But nobody heard the announcement.